October 28, 2012

Even in Halloween mask sales, candidates face off

A national retailer links 'victory' at the cash register to victory in the presidential race -- but skeptics say it's not so.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

This time of year, zombies and vampires aren't the only marauding characters throwing a scare into the masses.

click image to enlarge

Jeremy Davis and Scott Stevens, employees at Spirit Halloween in South Portland, model masks of Mitt Romney and President Obama. Nationally, Obama was outselling Romney as of last week, says the chain, which claims that sales of such masks have been a successful indicator of presidential preference since 1996.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Michele Tobey of Cape Elizabeth uses Obama and Romney masks on these scarecrows, which she’s entered in a local contest. She often finds cars stopped in the street with passengers taking pictures of the figures.

Michele Tobey photo

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"I can't think of anything scarier than waking up and realizing you've been magically transformed into Mitt Romney or President Obama right now," said Chris Korzen, executive director of the Portland-based political watchdog group Maine's Majority. "Who would want to be either one of those guys right now?"

Who indeed?

Being a candidate for president means you're out in public every day predicting that a win for your opponent will carry with it more chaos and catastrophe than a drive-in horror flick: "See the terror of higher taxes! Hear the screams of the unemployed!"

These are scary times for sure.

Yet there are millions of folks out there who are not only willing to wear a candidate's button, they're willing to wear the candidate's face as well.

As Halloween and the presidential election approach, masks of both Obama and Romney are hot sellers all over the country.

Some people will dress up as their favorite candidate for trick-or-treating. Others will dress as the candidate who scares them most to frighten folks at a party, or folks of a certain party.

But what does it say about us as Americans when the two people running for the highest office in the land are the subjects of such Halloween tomfoolery?

Well, the folks at Spirit Halloween -- a chain of almost 1,000 stores nationwide -- say the sales of such masks have been a successful indicator of who the public wants to be president since 1996. That's when they started keeping track. They call their technique of predicting the president by tracking mask sales in the "Spirit Halloween Presidential Index," and they promote it heavily.

Ever since Bill Clinton's chubby face on a mask outsold Bob Dole's scowl 71 percent to 29 percent, the man with the most mask sales has won the election, according to Spirit. As of last week, Spirit's corporate offices in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., were reporting that Obama was outselling Romney 60 percent to 40 percent. Spirit did not release specific sales figures.

But just a week earlier, Spirit had Obama up 65 percent to 35 percent, so Romney's handsome visage reproduced in rubber seems to be gaining some traction. Spirit will issue a news release with its final mask sales tallies Nov. 1 -- just a few days before the election, said Crystal Baxter, manager of marketing and licensing for Spirit stores.

Those who don't sell masks for a living might think that predicting a national election based on who wants to dress up as a certain candidate is frighteningly dopey.

"Do you wear the mask of the candidate you like? Do you wear the other candidate's because you think he's scary?" said Waterville native Mary Phillips-Sandy, who now works on "Comedy Central's Indecision," a political comedy website based in New York. "Or instead of buying a stupid mask, maybe you should just make a donation to a campaign."

Candidate masks that fully cover one's head are priced at around $19.99 at most stores, though you can find other versions at a variety of stores, some for less.

Funny stuff aside, Phillips-Sandy admits that political campaigns today are very much about visual imagery. Really, everything today is about visual imagery.

So a mask might be a good way to create some lasting visual imagery connected to a candidate.

Michele Tobey of Cape Elizabeth knows this. She's a Romney supporter, and wanted to do something political for her entry into a local scarecrow contest.

She bought two masks -- one for each candidate -- at a Walmart and began constructing two scarecrows on her lawn. To show her support for Romney, she positioned the Romney scarecrow on top of the Obama one to signify his impending victory.

"But I don't think people were too happy with that, so I keep changing the positions," said Tobey, who sells real estate and works for a mortgage company.

One week, she had the masked scarecrows positioned at podiums, as in a debate. Another week, she had them wearing boxing gloves, poised for punches.

Whatever pose she chooses, Tobey says the masked figures draw attention.

"Every day, there are two or three cars that pull up to look or take pictures," said Tobey.

Obama might be outselling Romney in the mask department because his masks have been around for four years, so he's got a head start. Or it might be because Obama's personality and look are more recognizable to people, says Deede Dunbar, consignment operator of Spirit Halloween stores in South Portland, Bangor and Waterville.

"We carry both masks, but we have a lot more of Obama because he's been a big seller for a while," said Dunbar.

Karen Morgan, a Maine-based comedian living in Cumberland, has her own theory as to why Obama masks are the bigger sellers.

"Romney mask sales are low because they didn't make as many," said Morgan. "Latex is expensive, and his forehead is humongous."

Korzen, who knows a lot of politically minded people in his job working for Maine's Majority, doesn't know anyone who has bought a candidate mask. That leads him to believe that mask sales are not really indicators of political preference -- or even good Halloween accessories -- but merely pop culture props.

"At the end of the day, you dress up as someone for Halloween because they are either scary or they are cool," said Korzen. "Romney, of course, is neither."

Korzen thinks retailers should sell Halloween costumes based on some of the things Romney has said during the course of the campaign. But he doesn't think they will, so he and a friend are working on their own Romney-themed get-up.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: rrouthier@pressherald.com

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